Crossing the Caingorms – a seven day (90 mile) wild walk

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For one week a year I am allowed to take a solo holiday. This opens up the possibility of something more adventurous or demanding than would be appreciated by the whole family. Whilst weighing up options for a long distance walk I stumbled on a walk report on Walk Highlands whose photographs enchanted me. Once I’d turned the route into digital form and poured over the maps it looked a fully practical option. An eight day route crossing the Cairngorms with good wild-camping options for all the nights but one. That one night being roughly in the middle and offering a campsite thus the chance for a shower / beer / place to receive a restocking parcel.

Here is the route I planned:

Planned Route image

During the walk itself I opted to make some changes to the original route. Such is the beauty of a wild walk, not bound by fixed campsites. The gpx files for the original route and also for the actual route can be downloaded from the links.

Preparation

This was to be the longest solo wild walk I’d ever taken on, and in an area more remote / lacking mobile phone coverage more often than I’d covered before. For my safety and the peace of mind of Mrs W I bought a Garmin inReach unit. These allow you to be transmit GPS tracking data and to send / receive text messages via the Iridium satellite network, so from anywhere in the world with sight of the sky. I wrote a review of the inReach here.

My view of backpacking is to strike a good balance between comfort and minimising the weight carried. It should also be born in mind that I was expecting snow above 700 m and nights where the temperature would drop below zero. Ideally I’d have done this walk a month later, but the school holidays dictate my schedule. May would have been a good deal warmer yet still free of the dreaded midge.

When I weighed my kit, inc. food and water, it was 15.8 kg. But I did have an ice axe and micro-spikes with me, both of which I needed to use. I was very pleased with this weight for an unsupported walk. One secret was posting a re-supply parcel to my midpoint campsite in Braemar with food, fresh clothing, maps, batteries etc.

The walk

Day 1 – Blair Atholl to head of Glen Tilt (12 miles / 250 m)

An easy day to start with, alongside the very attractive River Tilt

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I had a super pitch at the end of the day, right next to the river. Had I walked on a further ¼ mile I could have been next to the Falls of Tarf. Might this have been better still? Perhaps, but I’d enjoyed my day and was more than happy.

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Day 2 – Glen Tilt to Gleann Taitneach (9 miles / 650 m)

The only uninspiring day of the walk. It should have ended well as the plan was to Climb Carn Bhinnein and walk across to Carn nan Sac to camp at 3000’. However the wind was very strong and a message from home base told me to expect 40 mph winds at 3000′ and I could already see the cloud base dropping. Surprising for a walk of this length (90 miles) in Scotland, this short high level section was the only part which was due to be pathless. I opted to camp in the valley.

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The highlight of the day was eating lunch next to Loch nan Eun. Whilst the wind was strong I found a sheltered spot totally out of the wind. The quality of the shelter only became fully evident as I set off after lunch to find the outflow waterfall flowing upwards!

Day 3 Gleann Taitneach to Knaps of Fafernie [Jock’s Road] (10 miles / 480 m)

When I woke in the morning the cloud was at 700 m, and as I muted earlier the next section was due to be pathless, and now also clearly viewless too. Thus I opted to divert my route down the glen.

Detour Day 2

No buses serve the A93 to Glen Shee so I hoped to be able to hitch a lift from the Spittle to Cairnwell Pass. I struck lucky with a great pair of Polish guys across for their holidays. My spirits were really raised by not having to walk along the road for two hours. That said the views from the road were still rather fine. As I headed up Glas Maol from the pass I hit my first snow. Occasionally I could now see summits, but by the time I reached 900 m I was in a white out – snow on the ground and cloud all around. Very careful navigation was the order of the day, even with a mapping GPS. It was a great path though, even though I didn’t get any views until I was pitching the tent at the end of the day.

The Knaps of Fafernie did not show the greatest potential for a camping pitch. The ground was either boggy or stony. In the end I trampled a patch of snow so it was firm and level and pitched on that.

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Day 4 Knaps of Fafernie to Callater Lodge (7 miles / 120 m)

The cloud was low again in the morning and according to the MWIS was not due to lift. I decided to read for a couple of hours in the hope that the cloud would lift late morning. The idea was to leave my overnight gear in the tent and just take lunch and water with me on a there-and-back to Lochnagar. 40 mins walk got me to the summit of Fafernie but the cloud remained thick, low and unbroken so I claimed the top (a new Munro for me) and headed back to the tent for my lunch.

Thankfully the day was saved by my decent down Jock’s Road into Glen Callater. Beautiful.

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That said, I can see why ‘Jock’ never got the same recognition from the civil engineering community as McAdam. His ‘road’ was undiscernable until I reached the base of the valley! However the views of the corries below Tolmount and Fafernie were breathtaking. It was wonderful to be greeted by such amazing scenery as soon as I descended below the cloud. (which didn’t lift from the tops until just before sunset).

My pitch was probably the finest wild camping spot I have ever enjoyed.

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Day 5 – Callater Lodge to Braemar (9 miles / 510 m)

In most long distant walks there is a ‘joining one nice section to another’ day. This was mine. It was also a demi-rest day. However I did enjoy the Callater Burn which was flowing well because of the snow melt. To add interest to the day I walked over Morrone on my way to my campsite and demi-rest day.

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I enjoyed the views of the bigger hills I was due to tackle next, then headed to the campsite. As seems to be common on all my long wild walks, any campsite proves a great disappointment compared to your other pitches. However my restocking parcel was waiting for me and I enjoyed a shower before heading into town seeking some decent beer. There was only one cask ale option in town, thankfully it was good. Braemar Brewing Co. had just opened in the town, they had one from them and three others from the Cairngorm Brewery (Aviemore) at the Invercauld Mews Bar. If you want a decent pint, it’s the place to go.

Braemar Bar

Three of the beers were traditional, but Cairngorm’s Tradewinds was slightly left field and very nice. Made with Perle hops and elderberries. Perle is a hop I love (paired with Citra gives you tangerine flavours) and the combination worked really well. I just had to have another one because my phone hadn’t yet fully charged 😉

Day 6 – Braemar to Loch Etchachan (16 miles / 800 m)

Once I got the initial road section behind me, this was the one of the best days walking I’ve ever known. Ever. The trees and the mountain-scapes around Glen Lui and Glen Derry are breathtaking.

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I’m glad I walked down the glen, it was such a good day and the final ascent of 300 m at the end of the day didn’t seem at all challenging. It was fun to start the climb in a T-shirt and end up next to a frozen loch surrounded by snow. What a location, which I think it is probably the highest (proper) loch in Scotland at 3041 feet. I’d love to come back in the summer too.

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Day 7 Loch Etchachan to Aviemore (15 miles / 400 m)

Loch Etchachan sits in a bowl and ascending out of this on frozen snow meant finally using the axe and micro-spikes I’d be carrying all week. Sadly the cloud base was just below 3000’ but the MWIS suggested it would lift by late morning. There were still no views at the top of Ben Macdui so I sat in the shelter of the rocks around the trig point and pondered my options. It was late morning now and there had not been the slightest hint of the cloud cover thinning or lifting. I made a decision to alter my route and descend to the Rothiemurchus Forest by the most attractive direct route. With the benefit of hindsight this was a poor judgement call, because the cloud did lift at 1pm. However when walking solo I feel I should put safety higher up my priority list. On the positive side, my route down was mostly extremely attractive. At 1pm, as I was approaching Cairn Lochan, the cloud lifted but so did the force of the wind. I was now in two minds about my choice, but figured that given the nature of the Cairngorms, the chance of getting a sheltered tent pitch at 4000’ was not likely. My original plan had been to camp at the Wells of Dee, the highest source of a major river in the UK. I would have beaten my PB of highest wild camp from the night before too.

One cannot live ones life regretting our choices, so I sought to see the positive of my situation and opted to bag another Munro on my way down. Cread an Leth-choin, or in English, Lurcher’s Crag. The wind on the top was brutal, but the views spectacular.

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Lurcher’s Crag – the view from between the ears

After lunch sheltering just below the summit the map showed me a path down that looked good. How wrong was that! Should you ever seek to descend from this Munro into Lairig Ghru do not take the ‘path’ to the NW. Instead follow the shoulder down to the more major path running from Lairig Ghru past the foot of Creag a Chalamain. My route took me down the most challenging scramble I’ve ever attempted, the challenge coming from the unstable rock. Every third hand hold simply broke away. It is not a safe route to take. The longer route down the shoulder would not only be safer but much faster. It took me the thick end of an hour to descend 300 m.

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Then to try and continue to seek the gains from my loss of ascending the Devils Point, Cairn Toul, Braeriach et al I route marched the 7 miles down the tourist track, through the forest into Aviemore seeking to catch the last train South.

Roch Forest

After the first two miles the rocky path becomes much more pleasant to walk on and with tired feet I arrived at Aviemore Station at 8pm. My dinner was a cold feast from Tesco which I ate on the platform then took the train back to our van parked at Blair Atholl station. I was very glad to only have another 20 feet to walk from the train to my bed.

Conclusions

I’d say the walk was a mixture of amazing and disappointing – but the disappointment came solely from the periods of low cloud. I’d be very keen to go back and repeat the section from Braemar to Aviemore in more reliable weather. The heart of the high Cairngorms is like nowhere else in Scotland, wild and stunning.

2 thoughts on “Crossing the Caingorms – a seven day (90 mile) wild walk

  1. “For one week a year I am allowed to take a solo holiday.” – lucky you!

    Fantastic walk, shame about the clouds on the tops, but can’t be helped. And Braeriach will keep for another day – something to look forward to.

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